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A reason to hope
Death camp survivor addresses Liberty High students on Holocaust Remembrance Day
More than 60 years after the war ended, Hillsboro resident Alter Weiner still has nightmares about his experiences in German concentration camps during World War II. But partly thanks to the response he received from some Century High School students back in 2000, Weiner has made it his cause to help ensure such a horror is never again visited on the world.
At Century High School in December 2000 just a few months after he had moved to Hillsboro from Queens, N.Y. Weiner made his first public presentation about being persecuted by the Nazis. Weiner said he had rarely talked about his experiences before coming to Oregon.
In Oregon, I was approached by the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center and asked to share my story, he explained. I have always been self-conscious of my limited vocabulary, my foreign accent, and my flawed diction. However, I was coaxed to give it a try.
It was the response from students at Century that encouraged him to continue sharing his story.
A student wrote to me and told me, you made me appreciate my freedom, Weiner recalled.
Others said Weiner had convinced them to stay in school.
Im gratified when people tell me I changed their lives for the better, he said.
Weiner moved to Oregon in April 2000, and he said he is enjoying his new life here.
Oregon is beautiful and so is Hillsboro, he said. The climate in Hillsboro suits me better than in New York. The people in Hillsboro seem to be more relaxed and somewhat more polite than the people in Queens, but there are many cultural institutions in New York City which I miss in Hillsboro.
On April 8, to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day, Weiner addressed students at Hillsboros Liberty High School. According to Weiner, his appearance at Liberty represented the 806th time he has shared his haunting and harrowing story of survival in a world gone mad.
This has become his passion and his life, explained history teacher Brian Buckner, who introduced Weiner to the students packed in to Libertys auditorium. His living memory will be transferred to you. The souls of the victims have no graves, but they live on in memory.
As he began his talk, Weiner told the students that his experiences took place when he was 13, almost the same age as many of the high schoolers who gathered in the schools auditorium to hear him.
He explained that he had been living in Chrzanow, Poland, a small town not far from the border with Germany. On Sept. 6, 1939, the Germans invaded Poland, and most residents of the town of 22,000 people had no way to escape the advance of the German troops.
People walked to the interior of Poland to try to get away from the border, Weiner said.
Weiners father, however, could not go with his family because he had been ordered by the Polish army to stay and supply groceries to troops fighting the invasion.
We didnt accomplish anything, Weiner said. The Polish army was no match for the mighty German forces.
Weiner said he and his family went to another town further inland, but German troops were already there. After a couple weeks, they made their way back to Chrzanow, but found their home looted and their father missing.
The family was told of a mass execution near the town, and of a pit where bodies had been left. The body of Weiners father was located there.
I was 13 years old. Imagine how traumatic it was for me, Weiner said. I didnt understand it. Why? What had he done? I have nightmares to this very day of me as a child, looking at the victims.
Soldiers at the door
The familys nightmare was just unfolding, however.
In June 1942, German soldiers knocked on our door, looked at me and told me I had a few minutes to get ready, Weiner said. My stepmother pleaded with them not to take me away. Hes a boy; he needs his mother, she told them. They slapped her. I never had the chance to say goodbye to her.
Weiner was taken to a railroad yard and placed inside a cattle car with dozens of others.
Eighty people were pushed into the car with nothing to eat or drink, he explained. There are no words to describe that hellish boxcar.
But as bad as it was, where they were headed was even worse. The train carried the prisoners to a concentration camp at Blechhammer, Germany.
I personally know how starvation feels. The body eats itself, Weiner said. I would eat snow, or a raw potato. Youll eat anything you can put your hands on.
Weiner was moved to several different camps. At one camp, he was a laborer in a facility where German employees worked in another part of a large building. The German employees were told not to have any interaction with the Jewish prisoners, not to even make eye contact.
One day, Weiner said, a German woman looked at him as he was passing by and pointed to a blanket. Under the blanket was a sandwich two pieces of bread and a slice of cheese. The woman proceeded to bring food for him every day during the month he was at the site.
That German woman risked her life for me, Weiner said. If she had been caught, she would have been executed. Every day for 30 days she risked her life. I dont know why she did that. Maybe she had a son my age. Maybe she was a religious person. I dont know. But I am so grateful to that woman.
So grateful that after the war, Weiner returned to the town where the factory was and made an intense effort to locate her.
But I did not have her name, and how do you locate anybody without a name? he said. I could not locate her. But she is in the back of my mind every day until I die.
The last camp he was sent to was in Waldenburg, Germany. Upon arrival there, he was stripped naked and given a uniform and a number. Weiner was No. 64735. He weighed about 80 pounds.
While at that camp in February of 1945, Weiner became too weak to work, and he knew how the system operated: if you couldnt work, you were of no use to the Germans.
I was sent to a line. I saw the chimney up ahead. I could smell the strong odor of burning, he said.
But a German citizen came down the line, and he shouted at Weiner.
Get out of that line! You can still work! he told him.
Weiner explained the man was a businessman who needed workers for his company.
He was probably motivated by nothing other than by financial interest, Weiner said.
But the man had in effect saved Weiners life.
A few weeks later, we lined up to go to work one morning as usual, but the German guards didnt show up. We didnt know why, Weiner said. Then a Russian tank came to the gate and an officer told us, You are liberated. We cried like babies.
Weiners nightmare and the hell the world was living through was finally coming to an end.
After a few weeks, Weiner made his way to Poland to find out what had happened to his family members.
There were 123 members in my extended family. They were all gone, he said. I was the only survivor of my immediate family.
Despite the decimation of his family and the tremendous suffering he went through, Weiner said he doesnt hate Germans.
The German woman who risked her life in order to help me instilled me with an understanding that each individual should be judged by his or her character or ability, and not by ethnicity, race or faith, he explained.
At the end of his talk at Liberty High School last week, Weiner received a standing ovation, and he then fielded questions from students.
What kept you wanting to be alive? asked one girl.
Weiner said he would never know why he lived while so many around him perished, but he offered a lesson that might help to inspire others.
I dont know why I survived, Weiner responded. But I was a young boy. I wanted to learn what life was all about. I hadnt lived yet, and I was a religious boy. I had strong faith, and faith and hope go together.
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